Elizabeth Hodes Interview
(Elizabeth Hodes Custom Cakes and Sugar Art)

She’s a graduate of Princeton and the Manhattan School of Music.
In 2005, she founded her own business – Elizabeth Hodes Custom Cakes and Sugar Art.
Her cakes have been featured in New York Wedding’s, Brides, Modern Bride, Brides New York, and The Knot Live.
She’s appeared on the Food Network, MTV’s Made and ABC’s Good Morning America.
Her name is Elizabeth Hodes and she talked with us about her life.

Q – Elizabeth, you studied music at Princeton and the Manhattan School of Music. What were you planning to do with your degree?
A – Well, actually I’m going to correct you. I did not study music at Princeton. I studied Classics, Latin and Greek. A lot of classical translations. I studied music all the way along. So, I was studying privately and performing, but actually my major was Classics at College. Then I did the Masters program at Manhattan School. What was I planning to do? I’m not sure I even knew. I’ve always kind of been an entrepreneur even with that degree. I was very interested in starting things. One of the things that I worked on, my first really big entrepreneurial project was kind of a multi-media orchestra that I produced at Manhattan School of Music, with the combination of visual arts and film, a 30 piece orchestra performing ‘live’ classical music. I wanted to do that with it (college degree). (Laughs). Be creative. I loved to perform. I was very interested in trying new things. At the time I really wanted to pursue the multi-media approach with classical music.

Q – And in 2005 you started your cake business.
A – I did. I had done my sister’s wedding cake in 2000, my first wedding cake. I don’t know what inspired me to make the wedding cake. I just wanted to do it. I’ve always been someone who wanted to make things, to sculpt, to paint, any kind of art and craft. I’ve probably tried it and have some supplies on it and have books on it. So, the cake sculptor kind of fit into that category. It was kind of a craft I was interested in learning. So, I started doing it for fun on the side as I got my advanced degrees. Then in 2005 I decided I wanted to make this my primary focus.

Q – How did you learn to do this? It sounds like you didn’t go to culinary school.
A – I don’t have a culinary background. I’m self-taught.

Q – When you do someone’s wedding you can’t afford to make mistakes can you?
A – I try not to make mistakes, but, it is an organic product and unfortunately it’s probably the most delicate and most vulnerable of all the kind of elements of the wedding. Rain or humidity or just bad luck can be issues. We’ve all heard horror wedding cake stories, but, I do my best for every person. I really try to treat every commission…..I’m not particularly interested in heavy production because I come as an artist. I really think of each piece as a separate commission. I don’t think I’ve ever made the same cake twice.  So, each one is really unique.

Q – How did you start your business? Did you work out of your house or did you get a studio?
A – Well, I started working out of the house. As I grew and started getting attention, I now rent space for the bakery. All the artwork still happens in the studio, in an art studio. It’s very much kind of a visual arts based field for me. Some people kind of come at it from the culinary angle. Some people come at it more from the aesthetic angle. I guess I’m kind of the latter, although all the cakes taste very good. It just has kind of grown naturally. I was very interested in letting it grow on its own and not pushing anything too hard and not over expanding too early. I’ve just kind of let it do what it’s gonna do.

Q – So, you don’t have a retail store then, do you?
A – I do not.

Q – If you have a retail store, usually an inspector will come around from the Health Dept. In your case, will an inspector visit your studio?
A – Well, that’s why I rent space. I rent commercial kitchen spaces for that reason. Under New York law the art part of it is considered a separate category, so you’re legally allowed to do that anywhere. It’s the actual bakery that needs to be done in the commercial space.

Q – And that’s where you do the baking?
A – Yes.

Q – Was it expensive to launch the business?
A – I started out with very little capital. Relative to big businesses – no. My best resource was my own brain. So, that’s really what I’ve been using most of the time. I like the way my business is structured because it allows me to take the work I like to take or I want to take. It allows me to do other work that has nothing to do with cakes. I still continue to do a lot of other artwork, which is very, very important to me. That flexibility has really been key to how I want to live.

Q – By artwork, you mean paintings?
A – Yeah. Right now I’m working on enamelling. So, I do a lot of enamels and metal work. My boyfriend is a bronze sculptor. So, he does all sorts of work. So, we have a lot of art tools around here.

Q – You then sell the artwork to clients you have?
A – Sometimes. I have a line of kind of cake cutters, fancy pillars, fancy kittish cups and things like that, that I’m working on right now. Hopefully it’ll be coming out in another year or so. So, it’s cake related but it’s other media too.

Q – How did you get the word out about your business? It sounds like it was word-of-mouth.
A – Word-of-mouth has been key and as far as I’m concerned has always been key. I really let it grow organically. So, I think I sent out one press release early on to the magazines and I got picked up.  Fortunately I got attention quite soon. So, the magazines help and they help spread your name. Food Network found me about a year into my business and that helps too. I’ve done a couple of little shows every now and then. I do some charity events, but word-of-mouth has really been the best philosophy.

Q – And your website has also helped I would imagine.
A – Yes. I actually just re-designed it and put up a new design yesterday. Sure, the website is good. The website is really key because people just need pictures of my work. They don’t necessarily care about who I am. They just want to see pictures all the time.

Q – And that’s why you could never make the same cake twice.
A – No. I don’t think I’d be interested in making the same cake twice. I think I would lose enthusiasm if I had to produce more than one of a design.

Q – You make primarily wedding cakes?
A – Yes, I do. Most of the work is wedding cakes. I really do all sorts of stuff though. You’ll get all sorts of occasions, birthdays, celebrations. Sometimes I’ll get kind of an interesting commercial project. I did a project for a lingerie company’s photo shoot. They wanted elaborate cakes all over the place. Sometimes I’ll get fun commissions like that.

Q – You’re creating cakes for clients in Los Angeles, the Caribbean and the French West Indies. How are you getting the cakes to these people? Are you shipping Fed Ex overnight?
A – No. I always go with my cakes. Each situation requires its own logistics. There’s no sure-fire way. I won’t ship the cakes pre-assembled. I’m adamant that the cakes be fresh and tasty. Each situation has its own solution. One of the things I’ve done is rent space on location, or worked with a bakery wherever I am and decorated only or traveled with the decorations or somebody knows somebody with a commercial kitchen and I’ll get in there a couple days before. So, there’s always ways.

Q – Have you made cakes for any celebrities?
A – I have but I don’t like to disclose who. I don’t have permission and I’m not comfortable revealing (that) unless I have that.

Q – I always ask.
A – The other thing is most of the stuff is weddings, so people want to keep it private. I really try to respect that.

Q – Your speciality is life-like hand sculpted sugar flowers. That is such a specialized skill. You were able to teach yourself that by reading books? By trial and error?
A – Most of what I learned is exactly that. Books and trial and error. I get flowers and I tear ‘em apart. I dissect them and I look at them. You know, it’s all an illusion. I guess all art is an illusion, but it’s all how you create the impression of a rose or a poppy with the limited materials that we have.

Q – This isn’t something you could learn in school is it?
A – Well, I’ve taught people individually. People do have classes. This is what I’ve been told: in the culinary schools there’s a very limited exposure to these materials. It really is sculpture. When I look for people I want to work with me, I look for artists. I don’t look for culinary people, ‘cause I really view it as sculpture.

Q – How many people do you have working with you?
A – Full-time – none. Like I said, I’m very adamant that I keep everything very flexible. So, I actually hire on an as needed basis usually.

Q – Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
A – Well, there’s some exciting projects that I can’t wait to get going, but I’m not going to jinx them by talking about them. I envision kind of doing what I’m doing maybe expanding a little bit. I really like it the way it is actually. Well, things can turn on a dime. They really can. If one project works, I’ll be going in another direction. If another project works, I’ll be concentrating on something else. I have a couple projects I’m working on. One’s a television project. One is a wholesale distribution project and one is more of a bi-coastal type of project. I’m kind of just going with the flow and seeing what happens.

Official website: www.elizabethhodes.com

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